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Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Cheap Thrills

What Would You Do For $200? What Would You Do For More Than That?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 21, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Thriller, Dark Comedy
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: E.L. Katz
Writers: David Chirchirillo, Trent Haaga
Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, 
David Koechner, Amanda Fuller

"Cheap Thrills" is disturbing, depraved, deplorable, dehumanizing, and devilishly delicious. At times, it literally made me sick to my stomach – but it also made me think.

Craig (Pat Healy, remiscient of a younger Robin Williams) is a former writer who settles for work as an auto mechanic when nothing else pans out. An eviction notice threatens to put him, his wife (played by Amanda Fuller), and his 16-month-old baby out on the street. Then he loses his job.

While drowning his sorrows at a nearby bar, he runs into an old friend he hasn't seen in five years, Vince (an unrecognizable Ethan Embry). They attract the attention of a wealthy but twisted couple, Colin (the always fantastic David Koechner) and Violet (Sarah Paxton), who propose a seemingly simple offer: the first person to take a drink gets $50, "boom!" Vince wins that bet before Craig even realizes what's been said. Next on the agenda: throw a dart into the center of the board ($50 again), get slapped by a woman ($200), and slap a stripper on the ass (another $200).

It escalates from there.

To reveal anything more would be almost as criminal as what happens next in this bizarre black comedy that's 90% black and maybe 10% comedy.

All I'll say is that this is exactly the kind of movie you'll want to rush to tell all your friends and co-workers about on a Monday morning: "Did you see this?" and "Wait 'til you hear about the crazy shit I watched over the weekend."

Yes, as the title implies, "Cheap Thrills" is a novelty. It relies on shock value. But it's more than just a gimmick. The acting is superb and the scenario is thought-provoking.

Pat Healy and Ethan Embry do a fantastic job of transitioning from disbelief to desperation as the "game" progresses. Sara Paxton's character is more of a blank slate. She's either drunk and drugged out of her mind or entirely devoid of a conscience – maybe both. But David Koechner is the biggest surprise. Usually cast as goofy comic relief, he relishes his darker role here as the wretched ringmaster behind it all.

Just how far are desperate people willing to go for financial freedom in desperate economic times? That question is answered somewhat satirically in the film – in a way that's more than somewhat sickening – but it's a valid issue to explore. I don't know that I walked away from this bizarre blend of horror and humor with any greater insight, or if I was supposed to at all – but I certainly won't be forgetting what I saw for a long time to come.

I'm not sure how much replay value "Cheap Thrills" has – once probably really is enough – but it's well worth that first (and likely last) watch.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflecting on 25 Years of Tim Burton's Batman

Michael Keaton's Iconic Take on the Caped Crusader is Now a Quarter of a Century Old

By Chris Sabga

On June 23, 1989, Tim Burton's dark, gritty, and visually stunning re-imagining of Batman flew onto the silver screen with the impact of a Batarang whizzing overhead.

I was only ten years old then, and it would be my first experience with the Caped Crusader.

Even at such a young age, I was familiar enough with Michael Keaton to know that he was somewhat of an odd fit to portray a superhero. I had no idea, though, just how controversial the casting choice really was at the time. Picture that same scenario in the internet-era: Everyone involved would have been crucified instantly in 140 characters or less on Twitter – just we saw last year with Ben Affleck. But these were much simpler, more innocent days – at least for me – and I had no qualms about giving Keaton a chance. Actually, I didn't even think about it that way at all – Keaton had nothing to prove to me. I just wanted to see a really cool-looking, fun movie about a powerful man who "turned into a bat" and had an array of wonderful "toys" at his disposal.

Two hours later (126 minutes, to be exact), I was smitten.

Despite whatever doubts people may have had, Michael Keaton was absolutely phenomenal in the tricky dual role of the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and the cowled crimefighter Batman. However, every great hero needs a great villain – and they didn't come any better than Jack Nicholson's manic but magical and magnetic take on The Joker. The casting of such a respected Oscar-winning name like Nicholson sent a strong Bat-signal to the industry that this version of "Batman" would be more than just your typical superhero summer popcorn flick.

The strange sensibilities of director Tim Burton – who was then known primarily for "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice" – provided another invaluable asset. He brought a warped, off-kilter aesthetic to the project that was perfect for Batman, The Joker, and Gotham City as a whole. But Burton's "Batman" was far from a weird arthouse experiment. It was cool.

Stylistically, the film was and remains a masterpiece. The striking sets of Gotham City, the bold black sheen of the Batmobile, and the colorful and crazy costumes of Batman and The Joker all came together to create a distinct visual world. The fusion of Batman and Tim Burton was nothing short of a work of art – literally.

The only thing I didn't like was that Nicholson had been given top billing over Keaton. Yes, Jack was the bigger star, but why was the villain's name ahead of the hero's? It rubbed my kid-self the wrong way. (Actually, it bugs my adult-self too!) Maybe it was my strong sense of justice? (Either that or extreme OCD.)

Regardless, I had Bat-fever that summer. And I wasn't the only one. A whole new generation of children and adults alike fell in love with The Dark Knight. Batman was once again relevant.

I collected the trading cards, pined for the toy Batmobile, and generally just couldn't get enough of anything Batman.

Then I discovered Adam West.

It's certainly true that Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Tim Burton all owe Adam West an enormous debt of gratitude – but I would not have found West without Keaton, Nicholson, and Burton.

From 1966 to 1968, Adam West played Batman (along with Burt Ward as his sidekick, the "Boy Wonder" Robin) for three seasons on television and one feature film. West's version of the Caped Crusader was the complete opposite of what would come later. It was lighthearted, comical, colorful, and blissfully cheesy. Words such as "pow" and "zap" would appear on the screen during fights. I adored it.

The villains were the best part. In addition to The Joker (played gleefully by Cesar Romero, whose bushy mustache poked out of his facepaint), I was also introduced to many other larger-than-life evildoers – including Catwoman (Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, and Eartha Kitt all stepped into the role at different times), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Egghead (created specifically for the show and portrayed by Vincent Price), and too many others to name.

In 1992, Burton and Keaton reunited for a sequel, "Batman Returns," that I didn't enjoy nearly as much. A new director (Joel Schumacher) and a new actor (Val Kilmer) came together for 1995's "Batman Forever," which I actually enjoyed – possibly because of significantly lowered expectations. The stunt casting of Jim Carrey as "The Riddler" was a different story though. It seemed perfect on paper but did not translate well on-screen. The less said about the 1997 follow-up, "Batman & Robin," the better. George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger played Batman and Mr. Freeze respectively, and the entire franchise was – nope, I won't give in to my basest instincts and write "put on ice," "frozen," or any other temperature-related pun. Schwarzenegger had been a favorite of mine, and Clooney would become one, but this was not exactly their hottest outing. (Sorry!)

It would be eight more years before Batman would don the cowl and cape again for yet another reboot (Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" in 2005 with Christian Bale). And so it continues, from Bale to Ben and whatever lies beyond.

From comic books, movies, TV shows, toys, and more, Batman has carved out an immortal legacy that will forever stand the test of time.

But, for me, it all began in one small, dark movie theater in 1989.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Gustave and Zero's Grand Adventure

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 28, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Stefan Zweig (inspired by the works of), 
Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, 
F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, 
Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, 
Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, 
Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, 
Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, 
Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson 

The director Wes Anderson has often been accused of overbearing artifice. In his latest vision, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," he embraces his eccentric excesses to the hilt – and it works wonderfully. "Grand Budapest" has the whimsy of a well-worn fairy tale – the naughty kind told after a few drinks.

It is literally a work of art – every single frame of the film is beautiful enough to hang on a wall – and the acting matches the scenery. Ralph Fiennes is pitch perfect as a bombastic British buffoon who plays it straight all the way through.

As this tale begins, a writer (Jude Law) visits the hotel to interview its purported owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa recounts the history of the Grand Budapest, and the movie flashes back to 1932 and the madcap misadventures of M. Gustave H. (Fiennes) and his loyal lobby boy, Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori).

The frazzled twosome find themselves in the middle of many bizarre scenarios – including a stolen painting, a jailbreak, interacting with a crazed cast of characters (including Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, and others in big and small roles), and...the Prussian Grippe. What is the Prussian Grippe and who does it befall? You'll have to see the movie to find out!

It gets even wackier: It turns out that Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham's character) is the older version of someone we'll meet on this journey. However, the two performers cast in these roles look, sound, and act nothing alike. But I'm not complaining: I always welcome F. Murray Abraham on my screen – and even though the disparity between him and his younger self is utterly ridiculous, it somehow adds to the film's zany charm.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a joy to behold. It's colorful and funny. It will make you smile. Not too many movies can do that anymore.

Note: Because I love this and think you will too, here is a LEGO version of the majestic Grand Budapest Hotel structure: